St. Mary Anne’s, North East, MD Sept. 29, 2012
Readings: Gen 28:10-17 Ps 141 (Marty Haugen arr) Rev 12:7-12 John 1:47-51
“Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
The ministries of angels and mortals. . .I have been reflecting upon the collect for today as well as the scriptures appointed for this Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels.
Recently, I googled images for “angels,” just to see how angels were portrayed. Yep. Just what I thought. Fat little cherubs with wings who might adorn a Hallmark card. Innocent looking little girls with wings, who press their palms together in prayer. Michaelangelo’s painting of the two fat cherubs with messy hair, who gaze up towards the heavens. Then there were the depictions of angels that you might find in a fantasy novel—sort of Goth in look, but definitely not cherubic.
Holy scripture does not give us such images. Try as I might, I just could not imagine fat little cherubs climbing up and down a ladder in Jacob’s dream. I could not imagine blond-haired little girls with wings who fight with Michael against a dragon in the book of Revelation. (Frankly, I can almost envision those Goth-looking angels in Revelation, but cherubs? No.)
Yet scripture gives us angels. Sometimes they are silent—as in Jacob’s dream. Sometimes they visit people—as three angelic messengers visited Abraham and told him that he and Sarah would have a son. Sometimes they are guides for people or animals—such as the angel who stood in front of Balaam’s ass and blocked the way so Balaam would pay attention to God. Sometimes angels speak to people—as Gabriel spoke to Mary. And throughout our Christian tradition, we have all heard of the appearances of mysterious individuals who have rescued people from burning cars or from drowning. Or sometimes, a stranger has shown up for a chance encounter, then mysteriously disappeared around the corner. Many people believe that each of us has a guardian angel. Considering how some of us drive, this would be a good thing!
When do angels appear? In holy scripture and in our tradition, they seem to show up at critical moments in life, or in a time of deep unrest in a culture. In today’s scriptures, we get an example of both.
In Genesis, Jacob has had to leave home to escape the fury of his brother Esau. Jacob has tricked Esau and gotten their father’s blessing that should have gone to Esau, the first-born son. Jacob is lonely, far from family. He finds himself out in a wilderness area—both literally and figuratively. He isn’t sure where he is going, or what might happen to him in a life of exile. Yet in this place of unknowing, this midnight with a sky full of stars, Jacob lays his head upon a stone and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. It is in this wilderness place where he encounters the Holy One. In Jacob’s dream the Lord stands beside him and promises “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” And when Jacob awakens, he knows he is on holy ground. His journey into the wilderness was well worth the trip.
In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, the early Christian community struggles to survive within a pagan culture. The emperors who consider themselves lord over all persecute those who worship Jesus as Lord rather than to worship the emperor as lord. Christians literally die in the arenas as they face hungry lions or bears. They are being turned into human torches at Nero’s garden parties. In this time of deep unrest, John has an amazing vision of the ultimate battle between good and evil—a vision of Michael and his angels who defeat evil and send principalities and powers out of God’s world once and for all.
Regardless of when or where angels show up—and whether it is a literal or visionary experience—their ministry seems to be to bridge the gap between human beings on earth and the heavenly realm. Yet our collect today reminds us that God has established an order of ministries. Angels have their appointed ministries. We humans have ours.
How are the two ministries alike? They are both lived out to glorify God. They do not appear, or speak, or act, as ends in themselves. Rather, whatever ministries are done—whether by angels or human beings—our ministries are not about us. They are about God: God’s love, God’s power, God’s justice which brings peace.
How are the two ministries different? Well, you and I may never see an angel. If we are so blessed, we might have some sense that an angel has been in our lives. Yet the preacher ventures a guess that the mathematicians and scientists among us may never definitively prove that angels do—or do not—exist. So if we cannot prove that angels and their ministries exist, we seem to be left with the ministry of human beings and how we will carry out those different ministries.
We have a pretty good model for doing earthly ministry: Jesus of Nazareth. In today’s culture, we often hear the question “What would Jesus do?” This past summer, at General Convention, our Presiding Bishop challenged us by saying this: “Don’t ask what would Jesus do. Instead, do what Jesus did.” We are all challenged—lay and ordained—to do what Jesus did.
We ordain Darcy Williams to the sacred order of deacons today. What will she do? For a time, her specific focus will be on diaconal ministry—servant ministry. Like angels, deacons are called to bridge the gap between heaven and earth—or more specifically, to bridge the gap between the Church and the world. Darcy is called to “serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” She is to study Holy Scriptures. She is to show the love of Christ, both in what she says and what she does. She is to “interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
Yes, she will do some specific things in liturgical worship on Sundays. She can preach. She can call us to prayer and to confession. She can set the table with bread and wine. She can dismiss us at the end of worship, as we go forth to do God’s work in the world. Yet Darcy is not called just to help in the Sunday morning liturgy. Her ministry will be more far-reaching and she is not called to do this work alone. She has already entered into a new and particular configuration of ministry here in Cecil County and she will continue that work for the next eight months. This means that she is not to serve one particular parish; rather, she is to plant seeds, dream dreams, empower you—the lay people—to live into whatever ministry God calls you to do.
Each parish in the Church has particular gifts to offer the world around us. So what happens if we partner with other parishes? This prospect might make some folks nervous or fearful. Yet the fear that we will lose our specific gifts or identities if we partner with other parishes is groundless. God does not call us to fear. God calls us to joy, to build up the Church. To do what Jesus did while he was doing earthly ministry among us: we are to visit the sick. We are to take care of the poor—whose numbers grow daily, no matter where we live. We in the Church are called to reach out to those around us, to invite them to worship with us, to come to God’s Table with us, to come to coffee hour with us, and yes, even to be part of our family of faith in real ways.
If the parishes that work with Darcy accomplish this, I can tell you that it will sometimes feel like you’ve gone on a long journey, way out there in a wilderness where you have never been before. Yet I can promise you that the Lord will be there. Angels might even show up. But if you never make that journey, you’ll never know, will you? Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s worth the trip.
A number of years ago, a would-be poet spent a Quiet Day at Virginia Seminary—a Quiet Day that just happened to fall on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. As a reminder to Darcy—and to all of us of God’s amazing presence in both angels and human beings, the preacher will close by reading that poem. It is entitled “Who Sleep on Holy Stones: A Meditation on Genesis 28:10-17.”
Bearer of curse and blessing,
I left home to stumble into the desert.
Exhausted and empty,
I watch fierce sun set over silent stones.
Stars ascend towards midnight,
The wind moans through desert canyons,
And clouds drift across a full moon like shimmering angels.
Broken and empty, I come to you, O Lord God.
In a desert midnight,
There is no smell of blessed fields
No fatness of earth
No sweet dew of heaven.
Alone, I sleep on holy stones,
Under stars that blaze fierce and countless as dust.
The wind moans high above me, through desert canyons.
Clouds veil the moon.
Strong, shining faces of angels appear.
Lean down to earth,
Their glittering swords carve stones into steps to heaven.
Angels descend in silence to gaze into my face.
Angels ascend in silence to bear my deceit away.
Then in a shimmering, celestial dance
Of turning wings
They sweep aside clouds.
I see a heavenly host, their voices joined by joyous stars.
Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth. . .peace.
Their alleluias echoing high above desert canyons,
The Holy One descends from the gate of heaven
To stand beside my stone pillow.
To wrap my empty fears
In an eternal mantle of blessing,
To hallow the ground on which I sleep.
Michael veils the moon with his wings,
And the only light I see is God.
I left home, soul that raged with wild emptiness,
And in this desert wilderness,
Angels carve holy names for sleep.
They dance a path between me and You,
O Lord God.
You have found me, broken and empty,
On holy stones that ascend to the very gates of heaven,
And you have not cursed me.
In a desert midnight, I know
The smell of blessed fields
Fatness of earth
The sweet dew of heaven.
I will tell of You, O Lord God,
To laughing children who bless my tent,
To strong children who become tribes as countless as dust.
I will tell them of desert midnights filled with blazing stars,
Of fierce angels who carve holy stones
And dance with glittering swords among clouds,
Of hymns sung by joyous stars over Bethel
And over Bethlehem.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Pictures of Darcy’s ordination taken by Diane Thompson